Diversity and inclusion in financial services: Why flexibility – done right – can change the game

By Emily Woolard, Strategy & Marketing Manager

Fix one issue and you might improve the situation for some people. Live and breathe workplace flexibility, on the other hand, and you could be well on the way to fixing it for everyone.

As PWC’s most recent Women in Work index shows, some progress has been made across OECD countries with respect to equality and diversity in the workplace. Financial services is stubbornly trailing behind the pack, however, and still has the largest pay gap in the UK.

It’s been demonstrated conclusively time and again that diversity, particularly in senior positions, has a significantly positive effect on the financial performance of a company. So why hasn’t more happened to move the needle?

In financial services in particular, women tend to be proportionately represented in entry-level and junior positions but drop off dramatically at the more senior levels of an organisation. Understanding why this happens is regarded as the key to solving the problem – simply find out the reason why women are leaving and address it. Easy!

I vividly recall taking part in a workshop discussing disappointing employee opinion survey results at a leading financial services firm. The ratio in the room was about 75/25 male to female, and it was pointed out that women’s scores were – in the firm as a whole – considerably worse than men’s. “You’re women,” boomed my observant colleague, “Tell us what’s up with all of you!”

Part of the problem with the search for a single solution is that women – unsurprisingly – are all different. As unique individuals, we vary in our motivations, lifestyles, priorities and career goals. Fix one issue and you might improve the situation for some people. Live and breathe workplace flexibility, on the other hand, and you could be well on the way to fixing it for everyone.

What do I mean by flexibility? It’s a set of job design tools, yes – options for different working patterns, hours, locations etc – but it’s also an attitude of acknowledging and celebrating differences. If a person’s working life does not fit in with the goals and values most important to them, their motivation will suffer and sooner or later they will leave in pursuit of something that does.

For organisations, the challenge and opportunity is to be adaptable enough to provide that alignment. Sadly for the firm, it’s not enough to pay lip service to flexibility. It’s not even enough to offer it in spades without significant cultural change to go with it.

A high-performing bank colleague of mine used to work offset hours so she could collect her young children from school in the afternoons. Despite being aware of her hours, people would repeatedly schedule meetings during school pick-up, which she would apologetically decline and they would go ahead without her. She was the only person on our floor following this working pattern so she felt had to work twice as hard to prove herself. She was viewed by the ‘9-5 brigade’ as someone who wasn’t worth investing in as she had other commitments. Unsurprisingly, she left and set up on her own.

Many firms have a deeply ingrained culture which says that those who have priorities outside the organization are somehow less worthy of status within it. This has to be dealt with or they will always feel like second-class citizens. And eventually they will leave – I’ve watched it happen. Flexibility only works if it’s normal. If flexible workers stick out like a sore thumb, they will never feel truly on a par with everyone else.

It’s two-way street, of course. I’m not suggesting that employers should give everyone a completely free rein and expect nothing in return. As I write, I can almost feel the rage at ‘another one of those demanding Millennials’ trying to make the world fit around her!

Good employees do adapt – they give up a significant portion of their life to the pursuit of someone else’s objectives and they go above and beyond the letter of their contract to get the job done. I don’t feel it’s an enormous ask for a firm to build in enough flexibility that employees can better achieve their personal goals as well.

I count myself very lucky. Thanks to a great deal of mutual trust and understanding between my employer and I, I spend around half of my time working remotely. It’s what kept me in the firm when a significant life event would have otherwise caused me to leave my role. It’s made me harder-working and more loyal than I would ever have been to any other firm under any other circumstances. It might be naïve of me to call it a ‘win-win’ situation, but I’m struggling to identify the loser.

Technology means that for so many roles it’s possible to do everything required to meet and exceed objectives from anywhere with a phone and a reliable internet connection. On occasions when a face to face meeting is required, those afforded the flexibility of remote working will most likely be more than willing to put in the leg-work and travel.   

Re-thinking success

Women were not allowed to work in banks until the end of the 19th century, and for a considerable time after that, the roles they could take were restricted. In a financial services industry designed around men, it’s unsurprising that the established working patterns and prescribed path to success may not suit women particularly well.  But, quite frankly, over 100 years later not enough has happened yet to change that. Women have instead been expected to adapt their goals, their lives and their attitudes to fit into a system that wasn’t built for them.  

I’m of the view that it’s not that women don’t succeed in financial services, it’s that the narrowly-defined criteria set by the firm for promotion to the highest levels of management do not align with their much broader ideas of what it actually means to be successful.

One of the most successful women I know hasn’t finished climbing up the ranks within her organization. What she is doing is far more impressive. She is transforming the way people think and guiding them to create change. She’s using her skills in the non-profit sector for the good of countless beneficiaries. In terms of changing the world, she’s already further on the way than most of us will ever be. But in her firm, that’s not the yardstick used to determine whether or not someone is successful – it’s more about the number of people reporting to you, the length of your service or, sadly, even the amount of time you are ‘visible’ at your desk.

If we want a more diverse workforce to exist, and if we want it to pervade at all levels of seniority, we must champion diverse working practices and broaden our thinking on what it means to be successful. “One size fits all” does not work.

At the core of a true flexible working culture is the desire and willingness to treat employees – men or women – like the unique individuals they are, to understand their priorities and find a way for them to achieve the things that are important to them. Firms that manage this will reap the benefits that a more satisfied, motivated, productive and diverse workforce can bring.